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Friday, 27 March 2015

The making of predictions

As part of my work on my Big New Project, alias Many Voices, I am looking into the early take-up of telephones in Australia, and I have been surprised to see that there were telephones before the telephone: you will need to wait for the next release of Many Voices for that, but as I now have more words than Marcel Proust got into his paean to madeleines, the new version will be out before March 31.

For now, I am hunting something else, and it harks back to something Niels Bohr is supposed to have said: Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.

He didn't say it, though he may have quoted it, but every time something new is invented, people try to say how it will be used, and they always get it wrong. In point of fact, as I have said before, it takes us around 50 years to come to grips with a new invention and stabilise how we use it.

Just read this 1877 report, and see how they see telephones (and mechanical calculators) being used!

The American Centennial Exhibition has afforded the opportunity to bring into public view many inventions and improvements which otherwise would only have been known to the smaller circles that may find them of service. 

There is, for instance, an ingenious device for communicating directly to a central office by telegraph the changes in the weather, which are shown by recording instruments at different stations. It promises to dispense more or less with the work of the weather observer at each station, and to substitute the automatic work of machinery. This is a foreign exhibit As shown, it is perhaps better adapted for its present use in one of the smaller European States than in this country. But if modified by Yankee ingenuity so that a separate telegraphic circuit would not be required for each station, it might prove of service here. The telephone is a now instrument of electrical science more likely than some of the rest to find immediate use.

It operates by transmitting the current through a tuning fork. The fork will only vibrate a given number of times in a second. A message can be sent through it by the usual Morse code, there being no apparent interference between the tuning-fork vibrations and the message. But at the other end of the line the message can only be taken off through a tuning-fork in unison with the first. Consequently, if a tuning-fork of different pitch is interposed at each of several stations served by one wire, and the messages are sent through forks of corresponding pitch from the head office, the message to one station will not be repeated at the others during transmission.

Sir William Thomson, at the Glasgow mooting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science gave foreign notoriety to another of the Centennial exhibits that has attracted great attention from the judges of the group to which it belongs. It is a curious device that might fairly find place in the magic of Arabian tales.

A membrane is stretched over the end of a short speaking-trumpet. The membrane carries a small piece of metal which is, so to speak, the armature of a magnet. The magnet forms part of a telegraph circuit, through which a current is passing. To send a message it is only needful to talk loudly into the trumpet. The message is received by a similar trumpet with membrane and armature at the other end of the line; and that trumpet being placed to the ear, repeats the sound like an echo. Dom Pedro was with the scientific people who tested this instrument on one occasion.

So accurately did it reproduce sounds that each member of the party was in turn recognised by peculiarities in voice or accent. The final test was the reading of a paragraph from the news columns of The Tribune. Of what use is such an invention? Well, there may be occasions of State when it is necessary for officials who are far apart to talk with each other without the interference of an operator. Or some lover may wish to pop the question directly into the ear of a lady and hear for himself her reply, though miles far away, it is not for us to guess how courtships will be carried on in the twentieth century. It is said that the human voice has been conveyed by this contrivance over a circuit of sixty miles. Music can be readily transmitted. Think of serenading by telegraph! 

The calculating machine at the Fair is another of the new and strange inventions. Primarily it is an "adder." But it adds differences in groups and under all sorts of circumstances. Arrange it in one way and it will turn out cube numbers for you as fast as you can turn a crank. In another arrangement it will turn out logarithms as readily. Put on steam power and it will do the work that it is set to, without further attention. It furnishes its results stamped in a matrix ready for the stereotyper; no proof reading is required.

To the non-mathematical visitor its performances are utter mystery. Yet few machines are simpler. Take cubes, for instance, 1, 8, 27, 64, &c. ; subtract them from each other and the result is 7, 19, 37, 61, &c.; subtract these from each other, and the result is, a set of numbers that only differ from each other by 6. All that the machine does is to add these differences, beginning with those of 6 each. Yet in the endeavour to make, a machine that would actually do this work, many distinguished mathematicians have failed—among them the illustrious Englishman, Babbage.

His machine is now lying idle and useless at the Kensington Museum. The American "difference engine" is pronounced by our experts perfectly successful. But what is to be the effect on our posterity of inventions like this? Already a modified contrivance of the sort makes short work of the multiplication table. Our grandchildren—nay, our children —will be turning a crank, or twisting a screw, instead of working out the four rules with slate and pencil. Of the three R's, that which was the most essentially intellectual threatens to become the most mechanical.— New York Tribune.

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